Restrict in the name of regulation?

07 December,2023 01:00 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Mohar Basu

Weeks after I&B Ministry floats Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill 2023, OTT players wary of proposed advisory council that will regulate content; fear curtailment of creative freedom

The I&B Ministry had introduced the Information Technology Rules after the Tandav fiasco in 2021


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In the past few years, the broadcasting industry underwent a sea change due to the advent of direct-to-home (DTH), Internet protocol television (IPTV) and most significantly, over-the-top entertainment (OTT). Consequently, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) emphasised that regulatory measures should evolve in tandem with these changes. Last month, the MIB presented the Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill 2023. By replacing the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act of 1995, it wants to bring diverse broadcasting services - including OTT and digital news platforms - under a single regulatory framework. The MIB contends that it will help establish a comprehensive legal structure for the entire broadcasting sector.

One of the important features of the bill is the proposal of establishing a Broadcast Advisory Council. This will be over and above the Content Evaluation Committee, the self-regulation committee that each platform had to put into place from 2021, as per the Information Technology Rules. The proposal has evoked paranoia in some sectors of the OTT industry. A top executive at SonyLIV, on condition of anonymity tells mid-day, "The industry had pre-empted this because self-censorship has been the internal diktat for the past two years. Every show in development goes through three rounds of Standards & Practices [legal passes]. But [if the bill goes through], the committees will only become stronger and the leash on creative hands will be tighter."

The proposed council will have one independent person with not less than 25 years of experience in media, entertainment, broadcasting and other such
relevant fields, appointed as chairperson.

A still from Gormint

Joining the chairperson will be five officers nominated by the Central Government, representing the MIB, Ministry of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of External Affairs, and Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. In addition, five independent persons nominated by the Central Government, with experience in the fields of media, entertainment, broadcasting, child rights, disability rights, rights of women, human rights, and law, will be roped in as members.

The move is being viewed by many in the industry as a means to curtail creative freedom on streamers. A filmmaker, known for his spirited and political movies, says, "It might get tougher to tell a lot of political stories, but that's the challenge. Most of us are taking a cue from Iranian filmmakers. Stories of the democracy's flaws won't entirely stop. We just have to hide the messaging better, bank on comedy a little more, and do everything within the legal gambit."

The bill not only confers the government significant censorship and regulatory powers, but also has penalties and contraventions for the broadcasters and digital platforms. For the first contravention, the broadcaster will be fined up to R20,000, and for the subsequent contravention, up to R1,00,000. The clauses within the bill empower the government to restrict the broadcasting of channels or programmes for reasons linked to "safeguarding India's sovereignty, integrity, or security, maintaining amicable relations with other nations, and upholding standards of decency and morality."

The MIB, which floated the bill on November 10, has invited feedback from the stakeholders and public within 30 days of its release. Commenting on this, a JioCinema executive says there will be pushback. "One must remember, there is ample room for negotiation. One has to stop assuming that the government is trying to put its stooges in the committees and councils. [The council] will be a good mix because the industry is a money-churner represented by a diverse group of people with different ideologies."

While some are concerned whether this will lead to banning of shows or movies by the government, a senior filmmaker dismisses the notion. "The fears are often from the OTT platform's side, with Tandav [2021] having been made into an example. Now, the shows that aren't seeing the light of day are only because platform heads don't want to ruffle feathers. The OTT market will boom in the next five years, TV-plus will soon be a thing. At such a time, let's make the money and gain some power before sharpening our pencils to tell the fiery stories."

The Bill, at a glance

. Unified legal framework for the entire broadcasting sector
. It proposes to introduce the Broadcast Advisory Council, over and above the Content Evaluation Committee that assesses content compliance with Program and Advertisement Codes . It has prescribed advisory measures, warnings, censure, penalties or financial fines, applicable to operators and broadcasters. While the option for imprisonment and/or fines persists, it is reserved for exceptionally severe offenses
. Implementation of accessibility measures for individuals with disabilities

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